Dicing with Debt



Paul Tonkinson


Hat Trick Productions for Channel 4, 27 September 2000 to 31 March 2001 (18 episodes)


Students eh? Can't live with 'em, can't live... with 'em and yet they come onto the telly every so often in guises such as University Challenge (good) and Carry On Campus (bad). Just like the US show Debt, the aim here is for the contestants to get out of debt but in this case instead of credit cards we're talking students paying off their loans for a year. And getting let off any signposts and traffic cones they may have been caught crazily nicking in the past. We made that last bit up.

The show is hosted by Paul Tonkinson (who really really should be Ballykissangel and Drop the Dead Donkey actor Stephen Tompkinson's younger brother, but CRUCIALLY isn't). His previous television history includes such modern day classics such as The Sunday Show (which was actually alright) and some DJ thing on UK Play. He's a good choice, mainly as he's very adept at ad-libbing good wisecracks along the way.

Six students attempt to find fame and fortune (but mostly fortune) by answering some trivia questions correctly and hoping that the fickle finger of fate is pointing at them and standing vertically to all the other players, hoping the die (or dice, we can't be bothered) fall their way.

In Round One, called High Rollers (not to be confused with another dice rolling game show of the same name) each of our six contestants tries to buzz in on a trivia question. (Point in passing: the buzzer lights are virtually indistinguishable to make out.) A right answer earns a roll of the die (dice, whatever) and the number that comes up is added to their score. If they answer the question wrongly, then whatever they roll is added to everyone else's score. Harsh, but actually this all works out rather well and is a lot more fun than it sounds on paper (or VDU screen).

Image:Dicingwithdebt tonkinson.jpgPaul Tonkinson dices with... well, a dice (or die)

What doesn't work out so well is the number of contestants - six is a logical number for a dice show, but it's very difficult to get attached to any particular contestant. After just eight questions (i.e. not many scoring opportunities), the three lowest scorers are politely asked to bugger off. Judging by the tell-tale sign of "1, 2, 3, 4" painted on the floor, we suspect they originally had four contestants but they fudged it at the last minute for timing reasons. It's The National Lottery Big Ticket all over again! Actually, it's not anything like that.

Round Two brings fantastic prizes into play. On the dice (die) are the markings P ('prize'), 2P ('two prizes') and 3P ('three prizes'). On the categories board are eight topics, each one with a question associated with it. If you buzz in and get the question right you can roll the special prize die (dice) and get the amount of prizes that comes up. The prizes are selected from Paul's Prize Pile thing, like a casino card shoe except Perspex and full of little sticky cards. These cards are put on the contestant's clothes (like the US show Studs, if you'll ever admit to seeing that) to indicate that they own that prize. Some prizes are quite good (year's supply of crisps, vacuum cleaner), some are pointless (a coach trip to Torquay) and some you just couldn't buy (Alan Titchmarsh's wellies).

After four questions it all changes, but that's because we've gone to a commercial break and instead of watching a game show we're now watching adverts. Ah, but after that we are privy to the four remaining questions but now there's a twist: the die has now changed so that in addition to P, 2P and 3P we have L ('pass all your prizes to the person on your left'), R ('pass all your prizes to the person on the right') and S ('steal all the prizes off one person').

The UKGameshows statistics supercomputer (for which read: back of an envelope and a free biro from a Unicef charity survey) has worked out that it's mathematically pointless for the current leader to buzz in for a question, because there's a good chance of having their prizes passed on when they roll, but not nearly as much chance of them being stolen by another player if they don't. Again, only having eight questions in the entire round limits the gameplay somewhat. On the plus side, the categories are quirky (even if the questions themselves are bog standard and, frankly, rather easy), and the funny prizes work well.

At the end of the round, there's a kind of Bullseye-esque prize gambling moment where the leading player (and so on down the line) is asked to forfeit their prizes to obtain a place in the two-player final.

The two people in the final round then Dice With Debt in a duel to the death, because we can do alliteration too. Inside the host's briefcase are two wodges of cash which - funnily enough - are the precise amounts of money these two students owe after a year at university. Also inside are two bandanas to celebrate the fact that is is ten years ago since the Teenage Hero Ninja Turtles were in vogue (nope, we made that bit up too) and several number stickers (1-6). Each person sticks three numbers onto said bandanas in such a way that when their opponent puts it on they can't see what's on their head but everyone else can.

Now, if you're expecting something really clever here then don't, because all the contestants have to do is knock off all their opponent's numbers first and win their debt - a kind of Shut the Box game if you like. Therefore, we're not actually sure what the point of the bandanas is. There would have been a point to them if the contestants were isolated in a booth or something, but they can clearly tell when they've lost from the reaction of the other side. Hmm... sure something more could have been done with this (e.g. trying to deduce the number on their heads - something like that).

Well, actually there is an interesting fillip in that if you knock an opponent's number off then you earn the right to a follow-up roll. This follow-up roll has a risk, however, because if you roll one of your own numbers then that gets knocked off instead. Last one standing wins, nothing for the runner up.

The problem with the final round is that we not convinced it's that interesting. It gets tedious watching the dice roll round and round and round the bowl-shaped desk for about 10 seconds time after time when you're just trying to knock numbers off. We were also disappointed that the debts weren't particularly life changing. Sure, it's giving away money to hard-up students and that's a good thing, but there would have been a lot more tension and excitement if it was the whole three/four year shebang (particularly as the daily BBC quiz show The Weakest Link is doling out £3,000 a day). Also, note that the students who are deepest in debt have the most to gain - is this is a good moral to teach students, mmm? (To be fair, there is a tie-in booklet available that deals with the serious problem of student poverty.)

We don't want to get too down about the show - it's trying to pitch a game show at a difficult to please age group and it kind of works if you don't worry about the logistics too much (and it's miles better than Carry On Campus). There are lots of nice features, particularly the lovely graphics and overall "gameshowy" feel. But, if we were to look you in the eye, we'd find it hard to say that we were really, really looking forward to seeing it week after week. Maybe if they'd got a second series they'd have been able to iron things out.

As it is, this is a fun, lightweight thing that has its fair share of flaws. Like a pair of crooked dice. Sort of.


Devised by Iain Coyle.

Theme music

Dan Mudford


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